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How to Choose the Right Cat Food: Nutrition, Labels & More!

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Dr. Paola Cuevas

Veterinarian, MVZ

The information is current and up-to-date in accordance with the latest veterinarian research.

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When shopping for cat food, it’s easy to get lost in all the details. You have to consider things like buying dry food or wet food. Then, there are different kibble sizes and textures, such as pate or shredded. You also have to consider ingredients and make sure that your cat eats a healthy amount of vitamins and minerals.

Feeding your cat healthy and nutritious meals shouldn’t be stressful or complicated. To help you navigate the world of cat food, we’ve developed this guide to make this process easier. Instead of getting lost in the details, you can focus on key things to make sure that your cat eats the right kind of food.

The exact amount of calories an individual animal needs to maintain a healthy weight is variable and influenced by many factors including genetics, age, breed, and activity level. This tool is meant to be used only as a guideline for healthy individuals and does not substitute veterinary advice 

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Cats’ Basic Nutritional Needs

Cats nutritional needs
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When you’re shopping for cat food, it’s important to keep your cat’s basic nutritional needs in mind. In general, cats need high amounts of protein in their food. They also need healthy fats, taurine, vitamins and minerals, and water.

1. Protein

First and foremost, cats are obligate carnivores. So, they need protein from animal meat to survive. They can eat some plant-based foods. However, the main ingredient in all their food should be named animal protein such as chicken breast, beef, salmon, and ground turkey.

The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) has a minimum requirement of 26% protein in cat food recipes. However, a cat’s diet should consist of at least 30% protein.

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2. Fat

Cats will also benefit from consuming healthy fats. Fats can be energy-rich nutrients so it’s important for your cats to have a healthy intake of essential omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. Omega fatty acids play an important role in maintaining a healthy coat and skin. They improve immunity and have anti-inflammatory properties, both of which have a positive effect on wound healing.

maine coon cat eating
Image Credit: Fayzulin Serg, Shutterstock

3. Taurine

Taurine is a type of amino acid that cats need. Humans and dogs can synthesize taurine on their own.

If cats become taurine-deficient, they can develop dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM), which can lead to fatal consequences. DCM is a heart issue where the heart muscles become weak and can’t adequately pump blood to supply oxygen to the rest of the body.

Cats that don’t consume enough taurine can also experience eye problems and can eventually go blind.


4. Vitamins and Minerals

Vitamins and minerals are essential in helping cats maintain their health. The AAFCO recommends that the following vitamins and minerals be included in cat food:

  • Vitamin A
  • Vitamin D
  • Vitamin E
  • Vitamin K
  • Thiamin
  • Riboflavin
  • Pantothenic Acid
  • Niacin
  • Pyridoxine
  • Folic Acid
  • Biotin
  • Vitamin B12
  • Choline
Bengal cat eating
Image Credit: AJR_photo_Shutterstock

If your cat eats a healthy meal, you shouldn’t have to worry about adding vitamin supplements to the diet. If you’re ever concerned about your cat’s vitamin intake, consult with your veterinarian first to see if your cat will benefit from supplements.

Here are minerals that the AAFCO requires cat food to contain:
  • Calcium
  • Phosphorus
  • Potassium
  • Sodium
  • Chloride
  • Magnesium
  • Iron
  • Copper
  • Manganese
  • Zinc
  • Iodine
  • Selenium

5. Water

The average cat needs to consume about 261 milliliters of water a day. This can be a challenge for many cat owners because cats don’t naturally drink a whole lot of water on their own. They often get their water intake from their food. Therefore, it’s important to look at the water content in cat food, especially in dry cat food and kibble.

Kibble may be more convenient because you can leave it out for free feeding. However, it’s important to make sure that it has a good percentage of moisture in it. Kibble is a better option for cats who tend to drink from their water bowls on their own. Cats that don’t tend to drink from their water bowls will do better off eating wet cat food.

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How To Read Cat Food Labels

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The AAFCO and US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) influence setting standards for cat food because they regulate cat food. However, the AAFCO and FDA don’t certify or endorse any cat food. Instead, they provide information on the standard requirements that cat food should have.

According to the AAFCO and FDA, all cat food labels must have the following components:
  • Product or brand name
  • Quantity or product weight
  • Statement of purpose or intent
  • Ingredient list
  • Guaranteed analysis
  • Feeding instructions
  • Nutritional adequacy statement
  • Statement of responsibility

1. Product or Brand Name

The product name usually contains one or two key ingredients. You can get surface-level information on the cat food label and get a general understanding of some of the ingredients in the recipe. However, the product names can be vague, so make sure to check the ingredients to see what the actual recipe contains.


2. Quantity or Product Weight

The information for the quantity of food is usually on the bottom of the front side of the label or package. You can use this information to figure out how much you’re paying per ounce or serving and make comparisons with other cat foods.


3. Statement of Purpose or Intent

The statement of purpose is a regulation that requires cat food companies to specify that the food is specifically for cats. It might seem obvious, but it’s an extra safety measure for integrity.


4. Ingredient List

cat food ingredient list
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The ingredient list provides the ingredients in the recipe according to weight. So, the heaviest portions are at the top of the list. It’s important to keep in mind that these measurements get recorded when the ingredients first get added to the recipe. Therefore, it doesn’t measure the weight of the food as it cooks down.

Ingredient weight is particularly important for meat proteins because they lose a significant amount of weight as they lose moisture in the cooking process. Therefore, although cat food lists animal protein as the first ingredient, it doesn’t guarantee that the food has a high concentration of protein.

The end product may end up containing more carbohydrate fillers because the weight carbohydrate ingredients don’t undergo significant changes.


5. Guaranteed Analysis

The guaranteed analysis lists the percentages of crude protein, fat, fiber, and moisture. It’s important to use the guaranteed analysis to compare the percentages of these nutrients between different cat foods.

When you read the guaranteed analysis for wet cat food, you must separate the water content from the dry matter to get the dry matter percentages in the recipe.

To find the dry matter of a recipe, follow these steps:
  1. Find the moisture content and subtract the number from 100 to determine the dry matter.
  2. Divide the guaranteed analysis nutrient by the dry matter.
  3. Multiply by 100.
As an example, we’ll use the following percentages for wet cat food:
  • Crude Protein: 10%
  • Crude Fat: 4%
  • Crude Fiber: 1%
  • Moisture: 85%
Use the following steps to determine the percentage of protein on a dry matter basis:
  • Step 1: 100 – 85 = 15
  • Step 2: 10 ÷ 15 = .667
  • Step 3: .667 × 100 = 66.7

Based on these calculations, this particular cat food has 66.7% protein, 26.7% fat, and 6.7% fiber on a dry matter basis.


6. Feeding Instructions

The packaging will contain feeding instructions and recommended portions for your cats. However, these are very general guidelines, not requirements. Therefore, if you want to know the exact amount of food you should give your cat, consult with your veterinarian.

cat eating_Shutterstock_Africa Studio
Image Credit: Africa Studio, Shutterstock

6. Nutritional Adequacy Statement

The cat food packaging will contain information on what kind of cats the recipe targets. It can state that the food is for kittens or older cats, and it can also say if the food is helpful for weight loss or healthy skin and coat.


7. Statement of Responsibility

This information simply refers to the company that manufactured the food and how to contact them.

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Determining Cat Food Quality

white cat near food bowl
Image Credit: Pixel-Shot, Shutterstock

It’s important to keep in mind that the AAFCO and FDA don’t regulate cat food quality. Therefore, you can end up purchasing cat food that contains low-quality ingredients. One of the best ways to determine ingredient quality is to refer to the ingredient list. Certain ingredients can help you determine the quality of the cat food.

High-Quality Ingredients

Protein is one of the most important ingredients in cat food, so it’s important to find a high-quality source of protein. Look for natural meat products such as chicken breast, lamb, turkey, and salmon. Many premium recipes will also use human-grade or organic meat, so make sure to check the label and packaging for any indicators of high-quality meat.

Organ meat also contains taurine, so look for ingredients such as chicken hearts, turkey liver, and beef kidneys.

Since cats are obligate carnivores, they’ll benefit from fatty oils sourced from meat products. Therefore, ingredients like fish oil and krill oil are better options for them. If a recipe uses plant-based oils, look for coconut oil, which is the most nutrient-dense.

Carbohydrates aren’t necessary ingredients for cats. However, many cat foods include them in their formulas. It’s safe for cats to ingest nutrient-dense carbohydrates such as asparagus, carrots, and spinach.

bengal cat near food bowl
Image Credit: Photo_Olivia, Shutterstock

Low-Quality Ingredients

The first thing you want to watch out for is meat meal, such as chicken meal. Meat meal is ambiguous, so it’s difficult to know exactly what’s inside of them.

A lot of low-quality cat foods will use carbohydrate fillers. These fillers contain little nutrient value and just use up space and calories. Manufacturers will often put in high concentrations of corn, peas, soy, and wheat as fillers.

When it comes to fats and oils, cats can consume plant-based oils, but some are lower quality than others. Avoid sunflower oil and vegetable oils.

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Final Thoughts

Finding the right cat food for your beloved pets can greatly improve their quality of life and reduce the risk of developing health issues. When it comes to finding the right cat food, look for foods that meet cats’ nutritional needs.

Opt for recipes that have at least 30% protein, a good amount of healthy fats, and high water content. Also, look for high-quality ingredients that are human-grade or organic. Avoid recipes that contain carbohydrate fillers and too many plant-based ingredients.

Make sure to use the ingredient list and guaranteed analysis to determine the percentages of protein and fat in a recipe.

Finding the right cat food doesn’t have to be a painfully confusing process. With a little bit of time and research, you’ll be able to find a recipe that’s a great match for your cat. The results will be worth the effort!


Featured Image Credit: AlexanderDubrovsky, Shutterstock

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